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School Board Selection Stirs Anger

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Anne Arundel County delegates are again in an uproar about the makeup of the county school board and whom the governor appoints to it. There was even an angry shouting match on that topic at a delegation meeting last month.

“The governor still appoints the nine members of the Anne Arundel County Board of Education?” readers may ask, with some puzzlement; indeed, he does, mainly because Democrats who represent Anne Arundel County in the legislature have blocked bills making it a democratically elected school board.

This has been a partisan bone of contention for at least six years.

Decades ago, all the boards of education in Maryland were appointed by the governor, with the advice of local senators and commissioners. Over the years, more and more of Maryland’s 23 counties have shifted to a nonpartisan elected board, through local legislation passed by the General Assembly. Howard County made that transition 40 years ago.

The local boards of education operate under state law, not local ordinance. Local public schools are considered a responsibility of the state, even while they may get much of their funding from the county government.

Anne Arundel: An Outlier

Anne Arundel is now an outlier when it comes to selecting members of the school board, as county after county has gone to an elected board.

According to the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, 17 of 23 counties now have boards completely elected by local taxpayers, and four have so-called hybrid boards, which are partially elected and partially appointed. In Baltimore City, the board is jointly appointed by the governor and the mayor.

Only in Anne Arundel and Wicomico counties are the boards still appointed entirely by the governor through a formal local nominating process.

That process derailed this year when Gov. Larry Hogan failed to reappoint the only African-American on the school board, marking the first time in 42 years that there is no black representative on the Anne Arundel County school board.

That riled Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk and House Speaker Michael Busch, who decried the lack of black representation in a school system in which perhaps a third of the students are black. Peña-Melnyk, a black Latina who represents the Laurel-Russett area and is running for Congress, got in an angry shouting match at a delegation meeting with Republican Del. Tony McConkey, though it was Peña- Melnyk who did most of the shouting, which was captured on video by The Capital.

Hogan Accused

Hogan’s action was one of the grievances brought up by the Legislative Black Caucus at a press conference in which the legislators accused the governor of racially motivated decisions.

Republican legislators have consistently pushed for an elected school board in Anne Arundel. They believed that school board nominating process blocked Republican members while Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley was in office.

Legislation to make the board fully elected passed the House delegation twice when Republicans held a majority prior to the last election, but that move was blocked by the county’s majority Democrat Senate delegation.

Busch, in particular, has opposed an elected board for several reasons. He has pointed to the potential lack of diversity in representation from an elected process, and the fact that the policy-making board does not have taxing authority.

But one of the recently appointed board members, Maria Delores Sasso, a Latina raised in Puerto Rico, pointed out that recently there has been a lack of African-Americans seeking positions on the school board.

Republican Del. Sid Saab had proposed a bill making the Anne Arundel school board a hybrid (half elected, half appointed), but he withdrew the legislation. Pena-Melnyk wanted to amend the bill to guarantee racial representation on the board of education.

Howard’s Elected Board

Recent contention concerning Howard County’s elected school board shows that having an elected board doesn’t necessarily solve all the political problems. Howard County delegates from both parties, Republican Warren Miller and Democrat Frank Turner, have grown increasingly frustrated with school superintendent Renee Foose and the school board that recently renewed her contract.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary had proposed legislation to elect the school board by council district. Currently candidates for the Howard County Board of Education run county-wide. That move was staunchly opposed by the members of the current board, but Howard County’s delegates voted 8-1 to support the measure. Only Republican Del. Bob Flanagan voted against the bill, but it died when two of the three state senators, Republican Gail Bates and Democrat Ed Kasemeyer, opposed the legislation.

Elections for school board, even though they’re nonpartisan, don’t necessarily take the politics out of selecting members of the board that spends more than half the county budget. But elections make the process more open and transparent. They take the governor out of the selection process — and whatever backroom deals and invisible political influences might be at play.

Weighing In

Interestingly, the Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE), representing all the boards, “takes no position on whether board of education should be elected or appointed. There is no evidence that either elected or appointed boards are more effective or accountable.” MABE also opposes giving appointment authority to county executives.

“Because local boards are fiscally dependent on local governments, it is crucial that local boards remain an independent voice for children and their public education needs, and that a ‘check-and-balance’ relationship continues between local boards and their respective local governments,” MABE said in an official policy statement.

The huge amounts spent on public schools have been a constant source of tension between the county executives and governors who fund them.